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Three fathers lost

Divorce and death took their biological father. Terrorism killed their firefighter dad. Soon after, their surrogate father died. Now Connie Muldowney and her kids wonder if life will be normal again.

By LANE DeGREGORY

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 10, 2002


Divorce and death took their biological father. Terrorism killed their firefighter dad. Soon after, their surrogate father died. Now Connie Muldowney and her kids wonder if life will be normal again.

LONG ISLAND, N.Y. -- In their front yard, the American flag still flies at half-staff. It has hung there since Sept. 12 -- the day Richie Muldowney didn't come home.

That day, his wife, Connie, turned her coffee table into a shrine. That day, his children, John and Katie, knew they had lost another dad.

Their first dad died while they were still little. Then came Richie, who had raised them ever since they could remember. A New York City firefighter, he was crushed beneath the rubble of the World Trade Center.

After Richie died, his best friend, Patrick, stepped in and became a surrogate dad. For seven months, Patrick took care of his friend's family. Then, incredibly, he died too.

John is 12. Katie is 10.

"They've had to grow up much too fast," Connie Muldowney says of her kids. "They've already had to go to more funerals than most people will their whole lives."

Now there's no one to hang towel bars or coach Little League. There's no one to take you crabbing or explain football to you or bear hug you so tight you can't breathe.

There's no one around to convince you everything is going to be all right -- and make sure it is.

So Connie has to hire strangers to mow her grass and John has had to learn to sink anchor bolts into drywall and Katie quit playing softball because her dad was her coach, and it's really not any fun without him.

After a year of not having a husband and father, Connie and her kids aren't sure anymore that everything really is going to be all right, or even anything near normal again.

Connie's story

On a rainy afternoon in late August, Connie Muldowney is sitting cross-legged on her bed. The covers on her side are turned back, the sheets rumpled where she tried to sleep. The other side of the spread is still tucked beneath the headboard.

In the space where Richie should be, papers are piled higher than the pillows: pension claims and insurance forms; letters from lawyers and lobbyists; memos about memorials and college funds.

"It's been almost a year, and it hasn't stopped coming," Connie says, sliding aside some of the stacks. "A lot of it doesn't even make sense to me. ... There's no way I can take care of all this."

Some days she wishes she could shove aside the sadness like these piles of papers. But every day brings more aspects of death. Each envelope she opens seems to reinfect the wound.

Connie is wearing a faded red FDNY sweat shirt that used to be her husband's, navy gym shorts, no shoes or socks. Her dark brown hair is wrapped into a black scrunchee; her temples are streaked with gray. She almost never bothers with makeup anymore. She's wearing a pewter wrist band engraved with Richie's name and 9-11-01. A golden locket with Richie's photo hangs near her heart.

Connie turned 40 in July. She didn't feel much like celebrating.

She still hasn't taken Richie's clothes out of her closet. His second suit of firefighting gear still hangs from the door.

She dreams sometimes -- always the same dream. She's with Richie, telling him about this horrible nightmare she just had, where the whole world went wrong and the twin towers crumbled and she kept waiting for him to come home. In the dream, Richie always holds her tight and tells her, "It is okay. I'm home now."

The first dad

Connie grew up in Tampa, the second-youngest of seven siblings. After high school, she married a semi-pro baseball player named Gary Proodian. They had two children, John and Katie.

While both kids were still in diapers, Connie and Gary split up. Connie got a job tending bar at O'Brien's tavern. One of her regulars introduced her to his son, a New York City firefighter.

Richie Muldowney was a robust, broad-chested Irishman with a red handlebar moustache and a shiny shaved head. He had blue eyes that made him look like he was up to something, and a hearty laugh other firefighters loved to mimic. He cooked most meals on his shift: shrimp scampi and his infamous fiery meatloaf. He was the goalie on the firehouse hockey team, the guy who was as always willing to work overtime. He was a confirmed bachelor until he met Connie.

Richie took Connie and her kids to the Lowry Park Zoo, to St. Pete Beach, to the Tampa fire station. He taught John how to hold a hammer. He taught Katie how to jump off a diving board.

When the children were 7 and 5, their biological father died from liver and kidney failure. He had moved to Boston by then and he and Connie were divorced. He rarely saw the children. They are too young to know what they lost.

Richie had been in their lives four years by then. He married Connie and officially became their dad. He moved his new family to Long Island, where he grew up.

Connie and the kids still live in the house Richie rented. It looks the same, except for the flagpole and the funeral flowers on the porch.

Waiting for word

"That first night Richie didn't come home, on Sept. 11, we knew he was gone," Connie says. "Of course we all wanted to believe he'd come walking through that door any time. I didn't leave the house for six months, not even to get groceries," she says.

She was afraid she might miss that call, when someone was going to say everything was okay.

Connie never went back to work waiting tables. Friends kept calling, saying CNN was reporting more remains had been identified. But months passed with no word about Richie.

She prayed searchers would find some trace of him. His boots or his badge or a piece of his jacket, just so she'd have something to bury.

Connie and her kids went to dozens of other firefighters' funerals. They talked to counselors. They met with priests and financial advisers.

And through it all, during those darkest months, Richie's best friend was with them -- every day.

The surrogate dad

Patrick Boylan (everyone called him Patty) was broad-shouldered and bald, just like Richie. He had blue eyes and Irish blood and loved Notre Dame, just like Richie.

He and Richie spent 10 years side-by-side at Ladder 7, in an old, two-story station 5 miles from ground zero. Richie was working on Sept. 11; Patty wasn't.

From September through March, Patty stopped by Connie's house every evening to drop off dinner or a movie or cards someone had sent to the station. He pitched baseballs to John in the backyard. He brought Katie a $100 gift certificate to the Gap. He took them all to an Islanders hockey game -- just like Richie used to.

Patty had his own family to look after, a wife and two preschoolers. But he put them on hold half a year to help Connie and her kids. He fixed up the Muldowneys' shed, took out their trash, kept Richie's Chevy pickup running. He would always be around for his own wife and kids, he reasoned. Richie's family needed him now.

"I had to tell the kids not to mention anything they wanted around Patty," Connie says. "As soon as they talked about anything, he would go back to the fire house and tell the guys and they'd go out and get it." He brought John a Palm Pilot and Katie her own cash register.

By April, New York officials were talking about closing the trade center site. Connie couldn't hold off any longer. She had to have a funeral -- with or without Richie's remains.

Patty made most of the arrangements. He booked the honorary fire trucks and the bagpipe band, got the Long Island town to cancel its Little League parade. He shuttled Richie's relatives from the airport to the memorial service. He put off surgery he was supposed to have on his leg so he could stand up to say Richie's eulogy, so he could lead Connie and her kids in front of the funeral procession.

Richie's service was on a Saturday. Patty scheduled his surgery for the next Friday, April 19. "It's only an outpatient thing, a routine procedure," he told his wife and children. "I'll see you all for supper."

He died on the operating table.

"The doctors said his heart just failed. A man like that, 40 years old, and his heart just fails during an outpatient operation," Connie says, squinting back tears. "It was the stress of 9/11, of trying to take care of us all, that helped kill him. I can't find any sense in it. I don't even try any more. When Patty died, it just left one more widow and two more fatherless babies."

And another widow and her two children found themselves alone again.

John's story

On the Friday before he starts seventh grade, John Muldowney is sprawled on his bedroom floor, staring up at Britney Spears. The last time he counted, he had 119 pictures of her -- now he has way more. Britney above his bed, on his closet, blanketing every inch of every wall.

"She's only eight years and 11 months older than me. I'm almost an adult," John says seriously.

He'll be 13 in January. He's the man of the house.

"For a while, when Patty was around, he took care of things," John says. "But now Patty's gone too. So now it's mostly me." He carries in the groceries and takes out the trash and cleans up the kitchen. He tries not to complain, especially around his mom.

"Sometimes, when I can't sleep at night, I get up and look for her," John says. "She's always out in the living room, watching a video from Richie's birthday or one of his goofy home movies. And she's always crying. So it's not like I'm going to go to her crying, or anything. She needs me to be strong."

John is shorter than his younger sister and thinner. His baggy denim shorts droop around his thighs. When he's thinking hard, his intense brown eyes narrow almost to slits.

He wears the same pewter bracelet as his mom, and dog tags with his dad's badge number. He wants to be a professional baseball player, or maybe a firefighter.

"Sometimes, when I'm out on the ballfield, I know Richie is watching," John says. "I talk to him sometimes out there. I ask him to help me make this play or figure out what to do." Sometimes, John gets an answer. "It's usually like someone else heard me, or I see something later on TV and I realize Richie must've been listening."

An empty seat

In one corner of the living room, beside the TV, Connie stacked posters and pictures from Richie's funeral. John wore a blue blazer that day. His mom had sewn fire department patches on both shoulders, so it looked just like Richie's dress uniform.

"I miss hanging out at the fire house," John says. "Richie used to take me there every week. Since Patty died, I haven't been back at all. I miss all the firemen, having them stop by the house, watching football with them and hearing their stories and eating all the food Mom would make."

Now football seems less important and Mom never makes food anymore. John wouldn't care if he never saw another Big Mac. His family hardly ever eats around the dining room table. One night, John slid the oval table against the wall -- so only three sides would be open. He carried Richie's chair downstairs. No one wanted to eat while they were staring at an empty seat.

Katie's story

On the last Friday of summer, Katie Muldowney sleeps until noon. She'll start fifth grade next week. She pulls down her Barbie sheets and clicks on cartoons. While Sylvester torments Tweety Bird, she talks about her three dads.

"I remember my first dad, sort of," she says. "He taught me how to hold my breath. And we watched TV on his porch, my brother says.

"Mostly, Richie was my dad. Until he died."

Then there was Patty. "He brought us pizzas and took us to meet the Mets and he drew me this picture of an elf eating an ice cream cone. It was a great picture. But then he died too."

Katie has a round, freckled face and frank blue eyes. She's wearing a pink tank top that says Angel in silver sparkles and matching terry cloth shorts with the word stenciled across her backside. Richie probably wouldn't have approved.

Katie always has been vivacious and upbeat. But sometimes, now, she broods. When she's anxious or upset, she lashes out at her brother, or mother, or about something someone else did.

"We haven't gone crabbing this whole year. Mom won't cut up the bait or drive us. And my science fair project stunk because Richie wasn't around to help," Katie says. She bounces off the loft bed he built for her, clutching the brown teddy bear he gave her two Christmases ago. "See?" she asks, brandishing the bear. "It's even wearing its own FDNY T-shirt."

On her bedroom door, Katie tacked a plastic prayer card from Richie's funeral. A week later, she added one from Patty's. She stuck a bumper sticker beneath them: "FDNY," the red letters say. "We will never forget."

Daddy's girl

"I got to go to camp last week," Katie says, flopping down on the living room floor. "I'd never been to sleep-away camp. It was for all the kids who had someone die, or something."

She says she didn't really want to go. She didn't want to be away from her mom that long. But once she got there, and started doing crafts, and meeting all the other kids, she was glad she had come.

"I met Kayla. Her dad was a fireman like mine. And he died. And I met Rachel. She's from Belmore. And Julie from New Jersey. And Yaritza and Frankie, their dads died too."

"We didn't talk about it a lot. We didn't have to," Katie says. "We all had the same stuff happen to us."

Katie and her family have received many offers for free trips and for help since September. They flew to Tampa, in March, to be in the Gasparilla parade. They went to Washington, D.C., and they're going to Colorado. Strangers sent checks and quilts and beaded rings. Connie and her kids wrote more than 1,000 thank you notes -- and they're not done yet.

"My friends think I'm getting too much attention. They think the teachers are treating me like their pets and everyone is being too nice to me," Katie says. "They think we're rich or something, just because we got a new car, just because Richie died and they think the president is going to give us a million dollars or something."

"Well, we might have gotten to go to sleep-away camp and make a few T-shirts and meet a few friends," Katie says. "But the best thing I did was make this wooden stool. I made it myself."

She holds her creation up for inspection, demonstrates how she sawed the wood, marked the joints, screwed the screws. It's the first thing she's ever made without Richie's help.

Connie comes in, combs back her daughter's brown bangs. "He'd be proud of you, sweetie," she says. "If he were around, he'd take that stool into work and tell all those firefighters, "Look at this! You guys can't even hold a screwdriver and my 10-year-old daughter made this!' "

Katie beams. She can just hear him now.

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